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Effective governance of data exchange is complex. Could participatory policymaking be the answer?

7 mins read

Data touches everyone, everywhere. So it’s no surprise that creating good data governance policy is inherently a cross-cutting and complex endeavor. While centralized data authorities exist in a limited number of countries, and ICT ministries and telecommunications regulators typically play a formative role in setting and steering a country’s data governance regime, every sector of a country’s economy has interests in – and is impacted by – a government’s policymaking approach to data. Stakeholders span government agencies, departments, and units, as well as across public, private, and non-governmental actors.  

The stakes for developing data governance policies are high. And the complexities of governing data are further compounded by the pace of change in the digital economy – not only in the rapid introduction of new technologies, but also in evolving business models and consumer expectations about their rights and capabilities in a digital society.  

Ultimately, the established notions of governance based on national sovereignty and traditional economic sectors do not consider the data economy’s complexities.  We see this challenge playing out in real time around the world, for example, as regulators very publicly struggle to manage the risks of social media, with existing laws and oversight mechanisms repeatedly falling short.  Headlines continue to highlight the rise of disinformation and hate speech online, while warning bells ring about the role of the internet in weakening democracies.

We must take a pragmatic approach to data governance. Widening the tent could help.

These concerns, however, are not limited to the role of big tech platforms and highly visible social media brands. Instead, they are endemic to the data economy and directly relevant to the work of government data policymakers. Governments today must find new ways of widening the policy tent to bring in more voices and perspectives to gain buy-in, while also balancing the risk of fragmentation that can result from a non-unified approach.

Our research has shown that participatory processes for crafting and implementing data policy are one essential step in overcoming this challenge. In particular, research has shown that it’s essential for governments to play a strong role in building ownership among different segments of the population to better understand the risks of the data economy, to drive adoption and sustainability of digital services, and to ensure long-term accountability.

At the same time, only in rare instances do policymakers have the necessary combination of resources, mandate, and skills to be the driving force behind inclusive policymaking processes. While government must be a central actor in all inclusive policymaking processes – and is critical to ensuring an environment that enables such processes to develop –  government actors will not always be the primary catalyst.

There are several example models driving participatory policymaking around the world.

While there is no one-size-fits-all, new and more-inclusive approaches are emerging. Some established models are conceptually aligned with the multistakeholder processes designed for internet governance. Others have only surfaced in the last couple of years and are experimental and reliant on new technology platforms. Three types of participatory models that, through our research, have shown impact are: 

  • Intragovernmental: Coordinating between national and local governments to connect with local communities and civil societies and build capacity. 
  • Third-party convenor: Utilizing a trusted external partner to convene different stakeholders. 
  • Bridge-building: Leveraging recognized associations for specific needs to build and foster relationships and engagement. 

The experiences of Bangladesh, Sierra Leone, and Rwanda in implementing these models offer insights – and essential learnings – for other countries as they grapple with creating effective data governance policy. 

Bangladesh’s intragovernmental approach

Until recently, the government of Bangladesh offered no reliable system for civil registration to its citizens. Before 2004, only 8% of its births were registered, meaning that over 90% of the population had no legal identity, or proof of existence. In 2007, the government of Bangladesh uncovered a data anomaly: 10 million “ghost voters” in their system. This discovery would prompt a re-imagining of all the government’s registration and ID systems – and lead to major impacts on public services that rely on government data.  

But the effort faced major challenges. At that time, registration was split up across ministries, departments, and agencies – as was the registration of births and deaths. To tackle this, the government set up 4,000+ digital birth registration locations around the country. The registration process coordinated the roles of multiple ministries and offered a simple process to citizens to register births and deaths. Additionally, and equally as important, the registration locations provided a mechanism for local voices to inform the approach.

This successful model then provided a springboard for the Government of Bangladesh to establish 9,000 digital centers that today provide physical access points to access a range of digital services. The centers are managed through a public-private partnership that supports local entrepreneurs to run and ensure the sustainability of these digital centers, and provide a vehicle for continued local feedback and engagement.

Sierra Leone’s use of third-party conveners

From 2021-2023, the Government of Sierra Leone set out to align stakeholders across government around its digital transformation agenda. Much of this work centered on establishing data exchange policy and technology systems that could better provide services for citizens and create a basis for innovation and investment by donors and the private sector. The Digital Economy Project – or DEP – was mandated by the President and led by the Government of Sierra Leone. To meet its goals, the government chose to engage support from two third-party groups: Smart Africa and the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL).    

DIAL played a pivotal role as a third-party convenor in Sierra Leone, successfully aiding the government in finalizing key national strategic documents: National Digital Development Policy and National Digital Development Strategy, Government Enterprise Architecture Blueprint, and a National Data Strategy. Within a span of 18 months, DIAL convened 15 workshops in the country that brought together over 220 participants and actors from unique organizations as follows: 37 Government MDAs, including the Office of the President; 20 private sector organizations; 7 academia institutions; 6 donor country missions; 25 NGOs and civil society organizations; 3 legal firms. This inclusive and participatory approach, aided by DIAL, helped shape a policy-making environment that was both collaborative and effective and laid a robust foundation for Sierra Leone’s digital transformation going forward, ensuring strategies and frameworks developed were comprehensive, widely supported, and aligned with the diverse needs and insights of all stakeholders involved. 

The DEP partnership – with the support of DIAL and Smart Africa – demonstrated the power of a coordinated approach. Notable achievements include cabinet approval of a National Digital Development Policy and data protection and privacy law in consultation with civil society groups, as well as $50 million in World Bank funding for the Sierra Leone Digital Transformation Project to continue the work of the DEP.

Rwanda’s bridge building partnership

In the late 2000s, the Government of Rwanda prepared to draft a national data protection and privacy law. At the time, the technology sector was growing rapidly against the backdrop of the country’s booming economy. This law – Rwanda’s first single and comprehensive legal instrument regulating privacy and data protection – promised to touch every aspect of Rwanda’s digital economy, and its impacts would reach every business and citizen across the country. Because of its reach, buy-in from multiple sectors was critical.     

However, inclusive policymaking was not a strength of the government. In fact, much of Rwanda’s economic success has been due to the current government’s centralized policymaking approach. This stood in contrast to the multi-sector consensus that would be needed for a successful data protection policy. But doubts and mistrust among private sector and civil society stakeholders ran high; at the time, in fact, the Rwandan government Freedom House rating on government trust scored a meager 23 out of 100.     

Realizing this, the government decided to take a non-traditional approach to developing the policy. In 2020, the government engaged the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Center for the 4th Industrial Revolution to play a bridge building role to the innovation/ entrepreneurship ecosystem to inform the digital policy making processes. 

To do this, WEF created a Kigali-based Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR). Part of a network of 19 centers globally, C4IR Rwanda’s first task was to ensure the draft data protection law reflected the input of business and civil society stakeholders before being moved to Parliament for passage. Over many months, the C4IR team held a number of private and public consultations and open fora for debate. The team was able to draw on a highly organized business sector by requesting participation from the Private Sector Federation.  

The result was the development and implementation of Rwanda’s Personal Data Protection and Privacy Law, in collaboration with the Ministry of ICT & Innovation, the National Cyber Security Authority (NCSA), and other key stakeholders. 

Participatory processes can drive tangible policy change. Country experiences offer key learnings.

Data exchange is – and will likely always be – complex and constantly evolving. However, insights from these country experiences, and the leaders involved in them, can provide learnings that may assist governments, civil society groups, and donors as they seek to use inclusive approaches to policymaking. In particular, these countries examples highlight several key points:

  • Find the right use cases to catalyze collective actionCompelling use cases provide an opportunity to test and refine multi-stakeholder approaches. In Bangladesh, identifying ghost voters led to a broader focus on civil registration, and meeting that challenge required intensive cross-ministerial coordination. Since that time, the civil registration system has become a springboard for establishing a range of digital public services and an innovative public-private partnership model.
  • Define a focused set of key stakeholdersInclusive processes grow stronger over time but must be pragmatic to get started. In Sierra Leone, the DEP built on a decade of innovative work and political will to adequately resource a coordinating structure for data transformation that touched stakeholders from across the government. When the time came to approve policies and strategies, the coordinating body had the credibility and expertise to harness the political will needed to move policies forward.
  • Effectuate a legitimate response. Policymaking requires tradeoffs, and not every stakeholder will get everything they want in the policymaking process. However, clear and transparent decision-making is essential to cultivating a trusted policy environment. In Rwanda, working with a third-party like WEF was instrumental in ensuring that all voices were heard and the final policy was acceptable to critical stakeholders.